History of Colour


First published in Billionaire.com

In order to create the paintings we know and love, a painter’s job was once akin to alchemy to wrest usable paint out of natural ingredients.

In terms of physical colour we live in a hyper-sophisticated age; synthetic, controllable colours in any hue imaginable are easily available in every form desired, from printing ink to humble household paint. Yet synthetic colours are a relatively recent phenomenon, ubiquitous due to ease of production and malleability, with the first, Prussian blue, being discovered by accident in 1704. Naturally occurring pigments (used for millennia as far back as Neolithic civilisations where yellow ochre is in evidence) each have their own characteristics and properties, not least the varying expense or difficulty in obtaining them. It is surprising then to think that for many centuries of art history, in order to create the paintings we know and love, a painter’s job was one akin to alchemy, or even cooking, to wrest usable paint out of these natural ingredients.

For paint is essentially pigment suspended in a medium: watercolour is pigment bound with gum arabic; the earliest Byzantine icon painters or those working at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance used egg tempera before oil became dominant (the oil is linseed, and remains to this day, although theoretically anything such as olive or walnut can be used); in the 20th century, plastics were introduced, making acrylics. The first pigment ever used was yellow ochre, a natural mineral consisting of silica and clay, varying from yellow through red, brown and even purple due to its iron-oxide content. Present on every continent, it has been used as paint by innumerable civilisations, notably forming the backbone of Aboriginal painting. In perhaps the first ‘how-to’ guide on painting written at the turn of the 15th century, craftsman Cennino Cennini describes stumbling across yellow ochre in the valleys near Sienna, taking some away on his penknife. Ochre in its various shades became so associated with Italian Renaissance painting that some hues — raw or burnt Sienna, and raw or burnt Umber — remain named after these towns.

Cennini’s text reads like a Renaissance-era recipe book, as he describes how to prepare pigments for painting: apparently in addition to its flavoursome properties, saffron is ground to make a yellow; the green pigment verdigris is “manufactured by alchemy, from copper and vinegar”; making blue from lapis lazuli (more on this below) requires a complex, three-day-long process involving pine rosin, gum mastic and wax. That artists had only natural materials to work with at this time is wondrous; glue for binding wood or paper was made using, if not fish or animal glue from boiled bones, an extraordinary recipe of lime and cheese, and blacks could be made from burning bones (one daren’t imagine the smell). Imagine using a crust of bread, as Cennini advises, as an eraser for rubbing out drawing mistakes.

While ochre, the original colour from the earth, fittingly became the most common ground colour in painting up to the modern era, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is remarkable for favouring instead its variant, green earth, to achieve his distinctively colder visual feel; like ochre, green earth is a naturally occurring deposit composed by varying degrees of iron oxide, magnesium, aluminium silicate, or potassium. In his Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, circa 1670-72 in London’s National Gallery, he mixes it variously with bone blacks, yellows and reds, and ultramarine blue, tempering the purer colours with this earth hue. The woman’s arms, particularly the shadowed part of her face, and the light spilling from the window are thus considerably cooler in tone than his contemporaries.

Also contributing to this overall cooler effect is his mixing of ultramarine in areas most artists would never dream of putting it due to its hefty price. Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan: in 1508 Albrecht Dürer wrote complaining that one pound cost 100 florins, or £2,500 in today’s money. It is understandable then that in Christian iconography this blue is commonly reserved for painting the Virgin’s robes, being the most precious colour. As well as its obvious use here in the chair and the woman’s shoulders, The National Gallery’s technical analysis reveals its presence also in areas of flesh, the floor tiles and even the white walls. Vermeer is as such recognised as unique among his contemporaries for using this ultra-expensive pigment so lavishly.

Suffused throughout Young Woman Standing at a Virginal is lead white, the most commonly used throughout Western art history for its luminosity. It is however highly poisonous — records of its manufacturing process, and its use in make-up attest to this — and has been banned from sale in Europe since 1994 except under special conditions, with titanium white used instead. Indeed, painters today arguably face none of the struggles of historic artists, with synthetic versions even of ultramarine easily and cheaply available. In this respect, Indian artist Anish Kapoor is notable in his continuing engagement with natural pigment and its inherent physical properties, in the 1980s using raw pigment powder in his sculptures, making irresistibly gorgeous and pure mounds of colour. As of 2016, Kapoor has copyrighted use of the revolutionary new pigment developed by British company NanoSystems, called Vantablack. Designed to absorb 99.96 percent of all light, it is apparently the blackest pigment ever, and light years away from medieval craftsmen burning bones for black charcoal in their workshops. With ever-developing technology pushing new boundaries, one wonders where colour can go next.

Hieronymus Bosch: For Your Sins, Prado, Madrid

First published in Billionaire.com

Bosch’s grotesque, abnormal creatures represent the literal embodiment of sin, in defiance of nature and the natural order of the world.

This year marks the fifth centenary of the death of the iconic but mysterious Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). A landmark exhibition held at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the hometown from whence the artist born Jheronimus van Aken took his professional name, has sensationally gathered an unprecedented number of extant works, certainly for the only occasion in this lifetime.

Bosch is remarkable throughout art history for his singularly unique voice and startling originality; ‘s-Hertogenbosch lacked a painters’ guild — the established practice by which craftsmen learned their trade — which certainly allowed greater creative freedom, as did his status within the wealthiest echelon of Netherlandish society. Yet the sheer scale, breadth and inventiveness of his highly moralising paintings, famously populated by grotesque visions of writhing bodies, hellish beasts and fantastical landscapes has so startled and entranced viewers that he has stood apart from any other artist contemporary or since.

That we have so little documentary evidence of his life and commissions adds to the mystery surrounding his work. Certainly within his own time Bosch originals were rarely distinguished from copies or works by followers, and although patrons existed around the general area within the Duchy of Brabant in northern modern-day Holland, little is known about their intended purpose or raison d’être. In May 2016 the exhibition moved to the Prado in Madrid, where it was joined by several more works attributed to Bosch that had been rejected by Dutch scholars who disputed their authorship: the number of ‘original’ paintings therefore varies between 27 and 24, depending wholly upon stylistic and technical interpretation by each camp.

Because Bosch’s paintings did not follow a standardised Western iconography and purpose (say, a patron would pick a favoured saint’s life, maybe insert his own portrait as donor, and decide the format and function, like an altarpiece or contemplative panel) many of his scenes instead relied on images of folklore, visual puns stemming from popular moralising sayings. These would have made sense to a 15th century audience, but the meanings of specific scenes and characters are now effectively indecipherable. What remains clear throughout, however, is his distinct preference for the use of natural, ‘earthly’ elements recognisable to the contemporary audience as a stark warning against the follies of sin, and the dire consequences for mankind. His grotesque, abnormal creatures so lovingly imagined, represent the literal embodiment of sin because they are in defiance of nature and the natural order of the world. The teachings of religious thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) equating beauty and clarity with goodness were well known; medieval Christians saw beauty, goodness and truth as fundamentally linked.

Undoubtedly his most celebrated work, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500 according to the Prado, 1495-1505 according to the Dutch specialists), comprises three panels that open on hinges. The outside shows in grisaille the spherical world, and on the inside a vision of paradise and hell. Here, on the left is a vision of paradise in which Eve is presented to Adam in marriage among a light-green ground, yet it shares the same pictorial landscape as the middle panel, which is populated by naked bodies cavorting on the backs of oversized animals, eating enormous fruits and generally enacting as many sinful pleasures as Bosch can think up. Reading left to right, the vision of hell on the right in contrasting darkness contains at its centre the famous image of a giant figure forming a grotesque tree-like structure, bearing inside the unmistakable scene of a grim brothel at night. The figures chewing on strawberries in the centre are equated to erotic love as opposed to the institution of marriage: sinful pleasure Bosch shows as a temporal and transient thing, leading to licentiousness on the right. A sober warning to his audience.

By placing the scenes not as before and after, but at one single point in time, and filling the plane with ghastly abominations of recognisable animals and domestic objects — musical instruments are visible, as are a distinctive type of knife known in Brabant, or German earthenware pots — Bosch represents the earth as real and current, not some vision distanced from the audience by fantasy. The idea communicates that the horrid perversions of nature and earth are actually of man’s own making, all around us right now. The effect must have been truly terrifying.

Interestingly enough, despite the seemingly ultra-Christian message, Bosch is communicating, it is the reliance on showing natural elements of the earth — and their distortions — along with more ‘earthy’ visual puns, rather than drawing from the accepted canon of Christian iconography, that makes Bosch paradoxically an exceptionally secular painter. This perhaps explains the enduring power his images continue to have over viewers; for his messages are essentially universal ones of morality. Indeed, it is impossible not to be overpowered and disturbed by these works even today.